From Lima to Gustafsen: Psychological warfare

[S.I.S.I.S. note: Our usual warning before a mainstream news article is: "The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only." This particular article is not only a stunning example of B.C. propaganda, it also contains information that we feel is extremely important for readers to understand in terms of the ramifications of the psychological warfare used at Ts'Peten (Gustafsen Lake). Psy-ops expert Mike Webster stated in a prior article that "force was used to educate" at Gustafsen Lake; see The links between the RCMP tactics at Gustafsen and the violence used against indigenous resisters in Peru, are, we feel, indeed a crucial lesson for all peoples fighting for justice.]


Vancouver Sun, p. A01
Wednesday, June 11, 1997
Mark Hume

When 16 members of an extremist group known as the Freemen surrendered to the FBI in Jordan, Mont., last year, their action could be traced directly to the Gustafsen Lake standoff in British Columbia.

Another connecting line could be drawn to Fort Davis, Tex., where the leaders of a militant group left their "embassy" in the Davis Mountains last month and surrendered peacefully to police.

What links these incidents is the way they were resolved -- through negotiation, not violence. And that, says a B.C. expert who has been involved in some of the most dangerous policing events in North America, is a legacy of Gustafsen -- a 30-day standoff that cost $5.5 million and was the biggest RCMP action in Canadian history.

Despite a frightening array of arms on both sides, and firefights in which as many as 20,000 rounds were fired, the Gustafsen Lake standoff ended in peaceful surrender.

"Gustafsen was a turning point for conflict management in North America," said Mike Webster, a psychologist who frequently advises police in Canada and the U.S. on how to resolve armed standoffs.

"If the RCMP had assaulted at Gustafsen Lake and lives had been lost, Gustafsen would have become a flashpoint for First Nations. As it turned out, this trial [which ended recently] has been nothing. It has not been an issue for First Nations. You just don't hear them talking about it."

Instead of becoming dead martyrs for the native-rights movement, he argued, the Gustafsen Lake protesters were simply taken to court and those convicted are now awaiting sentence on charges ranging from simple mischief to mischief endangering life.

Webster, a key member of the RCMP negotiating team at Gustafsen, advised the Texas Rangers in their dealings with the Republic of Texas, an armed extremist group that took hostages in Fort Davis, and with the FBI, who took 81 days to negotiate an end to the standoff with members of the Freemen, a militant organization in Montana.

He was also an adviser on the Tupac Amaru hostage-taking incident that ended with a shootout in Lima, Peru and has since triggered retaliatory guerrilla attacks, and at the standoff in Waco, Tex. that ended in a violent shootout and is widely regarded as a law-enforcement disaster.

In both those cases, he said, he cautioned against attack.

"What we have learned in incidents like these is that you need to strike a delicate balance. We need an iron fist in a velvet glove," he said.

Webster said a "parallel process" has to be followed, in which the police must show they have the resolve and the power necessary to enforce the law -- but that they are ready to talk and to allow the people on the other side of the line to maintain their dignity.

"If the subjects see the iron fist poking through, they harden their resistance. If they don't see the iron fist, they don't see the benefits of negotiating, so it is a very delicate balancing act," he said.

"You must advance the velvet glove and iron fist at the same time."

At Gustafsen, Webster said, police resisted pressure to move in and end the dispute with an attack. At the same time, the RCMP built up a huge presence, assigning 400 officers to contain the area and probing the camp boundaries with armed patrols. Although a firefight did erupt, it was a spontaneous action triggered when police felt they were under attack.

Some have accused the police of pushing for a fight, but Webster said the RCMP held off on an assault, even though they were capable of launching a raid at any time during the ordeal. And the final results, although slow in coming, confirmed that talking is always better than shooting, he said.

"I think the RCMP did a masterful job in striking the balance between the iron fist and the velvet glove," he said. "The lesson we learned at Gustafsen was how to strike this balance."

Gary Noesner, chief negotiator for the FBI's critical incident response group, said the FBI is aware of how the Gustafsen Lake situation was handled, and it helped reinforce the bureau's view that such issues should not be settled with armed force.

"I think the lessons learned at Gustafsen are clear. We have to realize that patience and perseverance pay off. The important thing is to accomplish goals and not demonstrate frustration or anger."

Noesner said police forces want "to bring order to chaos" whenever they are faced with dangerous situations, such the one that developed at Gustafsen Lake.

"It's our inclination to very quickly use the resources at our disposal -- but that can have a very disastrous effect."

When negotiations become drawn out, he said, public and political pressure often intensifies, sometimes forcing police to act rashly.

"You hear, 'Well, why don't you do something and get it over with?' The media gathers and an incident like Gustafsen becomes national news. That's a constant source of pressure. That can force officials to conclude, 'We've got to do something and do it quick.'"

But Noesner said police have to overcome those "artificial pressures" and use restraint and patience.

Shortly after the Gustafsen standoff, Webster said, the RCMP were called to a dispute in the Okanagan, where the Penticton band was building bunkers and blocking a road that crossed the reserve to the Apex ski hill.

Again, police were under pressure to act forcefully, especially after the courts issued an injunction ordering the Penticton band to stop blocking Green Mountain road. At one point, government officials suggested the RCMP could escort maintenance crews who needed to work on the road -- raising the spectre of an armed guard forcing entry to disputed territory.

But drawing on the Gustafsen experience, the RCMP instead sought a negotiated settlement, said Webster, defusing a volatile situation with talk.

"The provincial government had us on the brink of disaster in Penticton," he said, because officials were pushing for decisive police action.

"The RCMP were forced into the picture. They had learned from Gustafsen that they could sit down and talk to [Penticton] Chief Stewart Phillip. Not tell him. But talk. The government had failed to recognize his importance as chief, to give him a say in his own destiny. The RCMP recognized that. They didn't get locked into a battle with him."

As a result, the bunkers Penticton band members had dug, and from which they had been prepared to shoot, were never used. The road-maintenance crew was later given brief access. The larger dispute continues to simmer, but no shots have been fired there yet.

After the crisis passed, Phillip credited the RCMP with helping bring the band together with the province for formal negotiations.

A statement issued by the Penticton band council at the time warned that the situation was "dangerous and volatile" because the province was threatening to have police enforce a court injunction. It noted that in talks, the RCMP had sided with the band against the province.

"The RCMP indicated very clearly that they would speak against the [enforcement] proposal. They felt that the time frame that the province was operating with was too unrealistic," said Phillip.

Added Webster: "People talk about the time and money involved in these negotiations -- but there is nothing more valuable than a human life. Police are not paid to lose their lives. They are not soldiers."

Webster said that in the past, authorities have usually responded to blockades or to hostage-taking incidents by first trying to talk and then, if that failed, by using overwhelming force.

"In the past, we've been willing to try the velvet glove. But if that didn't work, we'd bring out the iron fist.

"But assaulting them and taking lives never works," he said. "You might win the battle but lose the war."

The April 1993 disaster in Waco, Tex. was a worst-case scenario for that approach. Not only did it result in a bloodbath, with 80 Branch Davidians and four federal agents killed at the end of a 51-day standoff, but it became a flashpoint for extremist groups. Waco led directly to the April 1995 bombing of a federal government building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

But even what government might consider the best result -- the successful storming of the Japanese embassy by Peruvian troops, for example -- can prove to be disastrous in the long run, Webster said.

"That was a mistake," he said of the attack on the Japanese embassy that freed 71 hostages and left two soldiers and 14 guerrillas dead.

Webster was drawn in as an adviser in the Lima incident because the Canadian ambassador was working as an intermediary and the RCMP were concerned for his safety. His advice: talk your way to a settlement.

Instead, Peruvian officials launched a surprise attack that was technically brilliant and politically beneficial to the ruling party -- but which, in the long run, may prove devastating to Peru's social order.

Since the April assault, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's popularity has soared -- but already, guerrilla attacks have begun in retaliation, with Shining Path declaring last month "bloody May."

Nicholas Blomley, a professor of geography at Simon Fraser University, said the RCMP appears to have developed an effective, non-violent strategy for dealing with blockades.

But Blomley, who has studied the history of native blockades over the past 15 years, said the government needs to go beyond that, to strike at the roots of the problem -- or there will be more Gustafsen Lake standoffs.

Meanwhile, in the Gustafsen case, lawyers were told Tuesday to be prepared by June 20 to argue the case for and against allowing some of the convicted to face a traditional native Indian form of sentencing. Under the circle sentencing process, members of the community affected by a crime decide appropriate punishment. The Crown is also expected to begin submissions on that date for those who don't want to participate in circle sentencing.

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